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This article was originally published in Boom Magazine.
Ramón Ayala and Los Bravos del Norte opened their set at Arena nightclub in Hollywood with "Que me lleve el diablo" on that night in 2004. 1 As the heartwrenching lyrics and Ayala's melodic accordion reached every corner of the club, Adrián Félix, at the time my roommate at UCLA, motioned with his eyebrows and index finger to two young women sitting at a table across the dance floor. Before we had even asked them to dance, sweat accumulated on my palms and a pool of moisture formed in my lower back. I knew how to dance about as well as many newly arrived Mexican immigrants are able to speak English. Instead of striking a beautiful balance of smooth, graceful, and intentional movement, I awkwardly jerked my partner forward, back, and to the side, occasionally bumping into other dancers. To make matters worse, the boots I borrowed from Adrián were one size too large. The double socks that I wore to rectify the situation only added to my tenuous footing. My pants for the night, also his, were the tightest I had ever worn, and the black Stetson hat and long-sleeve button-down shirt were just a little too big. The only thing that was mine, by way of my father, was a shiny nickel and brass belt buckle.
My first attempt to crossover into the regional Mexican music scene was about a decade before my days at UCLA. I grew up in Pomona, California, a predominately working-class neighborhood composed of African Americans and migrants from Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam. At school I played soccer on the playground, after school in the streets and our backyard, and on Sundays on worn, hole-filled soccer fields. I hung out with children of Mexican migrants like me, who mainly spoke Spanish as well as those who preferred to speak English like I did. At home, I listened to my older brother's music: Green Day, Nirvana, and Stone Temple Pilots, as well as classic bands like The Velvet Underground. It wasn't until I entered junior high, in the early 1990s, that I actively sought out music and dances.
Like many second-generation Mexicans in Southern California at the time, I fell into banda music's raucous embrace. Futboleros, rockeros, Morrissey aficionados, and even rappers like Akwid, donned paisa outfits and attended bailes. 2 Both young men and women wore tight pants, cowboy boots, cintos piteados, and leather vests adorned with regional hometown or home state identification as well as paisa imagery -- a cockfight, bull riders, horses. Usually silk crema de seda shirts, often intricate Versace knock-offs that incorporated paisa designs, were worn solely by young men. To complete the outfit, young people hung a correa, a miniature leather horsewhip, from their belt loops. Lacking money from a part-time job, I used all of my available resources to put together a passable outfit. In my father's closet, I found solid-colored silk shirts and more stylized ones that clearly dated themselves to the 1980s, though they lacked paisa motifs. Aside from being made of silk, they had very little in common with the crema de seda shirts. From the corner of my father's sock and underwear drawer, I dug out a shiny belt buckle featuring a man astride a bucking bull. I was out of luck in the shoe department: my normally cool-looking Adidas Sambas stuck out pretty badly on the dance floor. I attended a few backyard parties and quinceañeras, but ultimately felt too awkward in my pseudo-paisa outfits. In high school, I continued to listen to Banda El Recodo, Banda El Limon, and the norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, but at dances sported soccer jerseys and T-shirts, always with the classic black-and-white Adidas Sambas.
In both of these two periods and outfits, however, my father's belt buckle remained at the center of my clumsy and piecemeal efforts to enter the Los Angeles banda and norteño scenes. My father told me it was a gift. A friend had given it to him after he rode his first bull. But that was about all I knew. For many years, I imagined him learning to ride bulls on a small ranch in Jalisco or in La Ceja, Zacatecas, where he grew up, under the mentorship of a wise old viejito, a charro guru. Maybe I, as his son, with the belt buckle as my center of gravity, could conquer dancing, and through this movement claim for myself a direct connection to the Mexican countryside and thus Mexicaness.
In 2007, as I prepared to leave California for graduate school, I asked my father more about the belt buckle. I was surprised to find out that he learned to ride bulls in Santa Barbara in the 1980s. A white man named Tom taught him. Tom, as a gesture of friendship, gave him the belt buckle after he rode his first bull. The buckle, like Tom, is American. I placed the belt buckle in my suitcase and didn't think much more about its history.
When my father passed away on 13 August 2013, the buckle became the most significant object linking me to my father, to his past. I was consumed with a desire to know more about it and my father. I pored over photo albums in the garage, watched American rodeo competitions on television, asked my mother about my father's bull-riding days, and read about American rodeos and charrería. I came to appreciate that the belt buckle's narrative, including my own imagined one, is a quintessentially migrant, Mexican, and Californian story. Let us start at the beginning: before the United States -- Mexico border was erected, before the rise of the US and Mexican nation-states.
Rodeo's roots go back to the Spanish conquest. Scholars aptly describe the conquest as an encounter between two distinct civilizations, noting the arrival of new diseases, technology, and animals to the Americas. John Lockhart, Caterina Pizzigoni, and other historians document the movement of ideas and practices between Spaniards and indigenous populations. 3
They highlight the transformation of language, the changing layout of indigenous homes, and perhaps most emblematically, the forging of a new Catholicism. These new practices, of course, took place within a strict racial hierarchy and rigid monitoring of social practices, where Spanish priests often prohibited indigenous populations from practicing their own religion.
The collective practices known as charrería, notes Mary Lou Compte, are a product of this complicated and nuanced dynamic, with the fiesta as its main source. Colonial society celebrated "anniversaries of saints, local traditions, pagan gods, special fairs and markets, and patriotic holidays" by dancing, listening to music, gambling, drinking, engaging in sport, praying, and attending mass. 4
In the sixteenth century, sporting activities included fighting on horseback with lances as well as grabbing bulls by the tail and throwing them to the ground. 5
The growth of ranching during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to the evolution of charreria. As rules prohibiting non-Spaniards from riding horses eased up and more and more indigenous and mestizos began working on haciendas, a "uniquely Mexican sport" emerged: charreada or charrería, events that showcased the skills of charros, the horsemen. 6
Nueva España, a colony of Spain, extended well into the present day U.S. Southwest, with ranching reaching California by the mid-eighteenth century. As late as the 1860s, the culture of the charros maintained a strong presence throughout California. In Santa Barbara, the pastoral economy connected classes and helped create community identity and cohesion, argues historian Albert Camarillo. 7
The Mexican-American War of 1848, dubbed La invasión norteamericana by Mexicans, brought many changes, among them an influx of white Americans. As Mexicans and white Americans worked together on cattle ranches, the latter adopted many of the skills and techniques of Mexican charros or vaqueros. It was during this period that white Americans began to host events that "featured most of the very same contests that continued to be part of the traditional Hispanic celebrations," writes Compte, "including bull fights, bull riding, corer al gallo, sortijas, picking up objects, steer roping, team roping, and bronc riding." 8
The American cowboy was on the horizon, but the charro was still the main man in the arena.
From 1883 to 1916, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows toured throughout the United States and presented Americans with a romantic and gloried image of the American cowboy. At the same time that the cowboy became ingrained in the American imagination, the political, social, and economic decline of the Mexican community in Santa Barbara was solidified. During the 1860s and 1870s, the local pastoral economy slowly lost out to the capitalist economy, which produced new jobs in tourisms, construction, and commercial agriculture. By the 1890s it was not uncommon to find entire Mexican families working in fruit canneries, in the almond industry, and harvesting walnuts. Along with these changes came a loss of political power and the creation of Mexican barrios. By the end of the century, 90 percent of the Mexican population lived in a seven-block radius between Vine and State Street, known as Pueblo Viejo. These changes, writes Camarillo, established the social, political, and economic conditions of the twentieth century. With the onset of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, and especially World War I, newly arrived Mexicans entered a segmented labor system and helped form a second barrio on the lower eastside, between Milpas, Ortega, and State Street. 9
As the Santa Barbara that we would recognize today took form, the American rodeo moved away from its Mexican past and into the realm of sport. In 1922, the first World's Championship Cowboy Contest took place at Madison Square Garden in New York. By 1936, practices now associated with rodeo were organized into a single sport and, according to Compte "promoted the myth that their sport came directly from informal contests among Anglo cowboys, ignoring the Hispanic influence along with the theatrical." 10 South of the US-Mexico border a similar consolidation took place. After the Mexican Revolution, there was an effort by the state, intellectuals, and citizens to define Mexico's past and present as well as to make Indians, peasants, and other corporate groups into "good Mexican citizens." 11
In 1933, the same year as the founding of the Federación Mexicana de Charros, President Abelardo L. Rodríguez declared charrería Mexico's national sport. 12
As the century progressed, the image of the American cowboy and Mexican charro grew in strength while they grew apart, ensuring the divorce of American rodeo from its Mexican influence and past. By the 1990s, when I was in high school, Clint Eastwood was an all-American cowboy and Vicente Fernandez was Mexico's favorite charro -- and they had next to nothing in common in my mind.
Nicolás Guzmán was born on a small ranch called Los Pozitos in La Ceja, García de la Cadena, Zacatecas, in 1958. He was the third child of José María Guzmán Castañeda and María Arellano Prieto de Guzmán. The family worked a small plot of land and subsisted by planting corn, beans, and other vegetables. Like many other Zacatecano families, they migrated south, to the developing state of Jalisco.
In 1966 José María, his wife María, and their three children Santos, Manuel, and Nicolás settled in the Colonia Santa Margarita, a poor working-class neighborhood near the city of Guadalajara. During this time, José María supported his expanding family by working in the United States for a few months at a time. My grandmother recalls that he first migrated in 1958, as a contracted bracero. Like other men, he overstayed his contract and found other work. But even with the dollars he sent south, his family struggled economically. Led by Manuel, the oldest son, they did their best to scrap together a living. Manuel sold insurance; the younger boys sold gum on city buses and shined shoes just outside of Guadalajara's Cathedral. María took in other people's laundry and, along with the girls, maintained a tidy home.
These were challenging times for the family, but the boys, my uncles, have fond memories of their youth. There was little that Manuel, Nicolás, and the two younger brothers, Lupe and Ismael, loved more that playing and watching soccer. They cheered for America, a Mexican national club team from Mexico City, and the bitter rivals of Guadalajara's Chivas. Indeed, their love for the game has transcended time and space, and imparted the new generation with a poetic appreciation of the game and some skills to play it. In our most-recent small-sided game, Maylo (short for Ismael) told us why my father decided to become a goalie. During a hard-fought match at Estadio Jalisco, America's goalie Prudencio Cortes made numerous saves, including a set of three consecutive shots on goal from close range. Nicolas was hooked.
His first goalie jersey was an American high school letterman sweater that his father bought at a second hand store in the United States. The goals he defended were all on hard dirt fields with rocks scattered throughout the pitch. At only 5 feet, 7 inches and 130 pounds, Nicolás was not the strongest nor most athletic youngster. Luckily, in the goal, measuring and calculating one's position is as important as one's athletic ability. The difference between a save and a goal is often contingent on shuffling one's feet no more than a foot or two before the opposing player takes a shot and then, of course, the actual dive. By diving at a slight forward angle the goalie can meet the ball early on in its trajectory, cutting it off before it moves farther and farther away from one's body and hands. My father imparted these insights to me during drills and penalty kicks in our backyard, directly in front of a makeshift soccer goal that we constructed using white PVC pipes. By his own admission he never mastered diving at a slight forward angle. Yet the careful observation and meticulous calculations required of a goalie fit well with Nicolás's appreciation of math and his often neurotic tendencies. Untied shoelaces, unmade beds, and carelessly scattered toys troubled his sense of, and need for, order. I suspect this is why he enjoyed the responsibility of being the last man and having a type of horizontal bird's eye perspective of the field. From the goal, one can see all the offensive plays develop and more importantly, can yell out instructions to one's fellow players. And of course, he also enjoyed the acrobatics of being goalie. He loved that whether he was diving up to block a shot near the top of the cross bar or down to the ground, he had to consistently fight and defy gravity, all while ensuring a safe and soft landing.
During the week, Nicolás spent his days and evenings working at Musica Lemus, a record store in downtown, Guadalajara. This provided him access to all the latest music and a future playlist for his car, truck, and home stereo: English giants like the Beatles, French divas like Francoise Hardy, the international and trilingual star Jannette, Dan Fogelberg, Don McLean, John Denver, and others. Nicolás did not know French or English, but this did not matter; like others of his generation, he sang along, making up the meaning of each word, refrain, and chorus. His pants, like his hair were long, flowing out at their ends.
This modern urban sensibility was coupled with a romantic idealism for the countryside. From his childhood, Nicolás retained memories of large open spaces and a rugged simplicity. These visions of Zacatecas were layered with portraits of the American West from films, particularly those of his favorite cowboy, Clint Eastwood, whom he preferred over John Wayne. Nicolás didn't buy Wayne's portrayal of cowboy life, finding it inauthentic and Wayne himself a few pounds too heavy to be a "real cowboy." In both the American West and rural Mexico, Nicolás found simplicity, dignity, and directness. One of his most common expressions, often evoked as a demand for clarity, was "vamos al grano." The English translation for grano is grain or bean, and the expression vamos al grano is understood to mean "let's get to the point," or "let's get to root of it."
In the summer of 1977, Nicolás met Francisca. She was born and raised in Guadalajara, but had moved to Mexicali and then later to South El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles, where she completed the last two years of high school. That summer, she, along with her siblings, lived in the Colonia Santa Margarita, just a few blocks from the Guzmán household. After only two weeks of going out and very much al grano, Nicolás confessed to Francisca that he wanted to marry her. After that summer, they sent dozens of postcards and letters and visited each other in Guadalajara and South El Monte as often as possible. A year later, they got married in Guadalajara and a year after that migrated to Los Angeles.
Desperate for work and without much luck in Los Angeles, Nicolás reached out to his father. At the time, José María was working for a landscaping company in Santa Barbara pruning trees and living near Milpas Street, in the historic Mexican barrio of Santa Barbara. José María found Nicolás a job working as a field hand on a ranch in Montecito, a wealthy city near Santa Barbara. Nicolás worked alongside several white Americans, including Tom. It was with these white American men and not a Mexican vaquero that he learned to ride bulls.
The key to a successful ride lies in careful attention to detail, split-second decision-making, and purposeful and graceful movement as much as strength -- much like guarding the goal in soccer. Great bull riders make this all look easy, but the various factors to consider are pretty daunting. Bulls use their speed, power, and movement to throw off a bull rider. They can change direction, buck and kick their legs in numerous directions, and drop the front of their body. To stay on, bull riders use their inner thigh muscles and legs to embrace the body of the bull, move their groin and upper body in response to the bull's movement, and try to maintain a center of gravity. Hitting the ground, of course, is inevitable for every bull rider. As the cowboy saying goes, "There was never a horse that couldn't be rode; there never was a man that couldn't be throwed." 13
Tom taught Nick, as they affectionately called him, the basics on small bulls in the open range and gave him the belt buckle after he successfully rode his first bull. Nick wore it to formal and informal bull-riding events throughout Santa Barbara County. On one occasion, with José María in the audience, he successfully rode a bull for eight seconds, scoring the highest points and taking home a small pot of money. Nick rode bulls from 1979 to 1981, leaving bull riding when he took his wife and three children, including me, back to Guadalajara.
Although he never returned to bull riding, the belt buckle remained a mainstay in his wardrobe. He wore it with regular T-shirts, polo shirts, and long-sleeve dress shirts. For Nicolás, the buckle was a point of pride, as it is for many rodeo riders. The history of rodeo buckles is relatively recent, and tied to the recent history of rodeo. In the late nineteenth century, cowboys wore suspenders instead of belts. With the rise of organized rodeo competitions, belt buckles were awarded as trophies. As the twentieth century progressed, it became easier to mass-produce belt buckles, increasing their popularity and use. 14 Today, buckles continue to be awarded as prizes at rodeo competitions and worn inside and outside of formal events.
Approximately 2 inches in circumference and made of nickel giving it some heft, my father's belt buckle has at its center, in brass relief, a man on top of a bucking bull, the man's right hand waving in the air. It can pass for Mexican, but more because of the great diversity of Mexican belt buckles than for its own intrinsic qualities. Mexican belts and buckles vary in size, material, and imagery. One of the most common belts is the cinto piteado. Pita, a fiber found in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, is stitched into leather to form floral, charrería, prehispanic patterns and imagery, and individuals' initials and hometown. This artisanal practice has its roots in Spanish leather handcraft, with noticeable Arab influences. Interestingly, the mecca for cintos piteados is Colotlán, a small town at the northern tip of the state of Jalisco. 15 Due the state of Jalisco's strange configuration, Colotlán, is 75 miles north of my father's birthplace, García de la Cadena, Zacatecas, and about 125 miles north of the city of his youth, Guadalajara. In addition to the cinto piteado, there are large, oval, buckles, made from a variety of metals and sometimes the horn of a bull.
The narrative I have now constructed about the origins of my father's belt buckle, particularly where and how he learned to ride bulls, fits well within what we know about Mexican migrants and migration. Yet, Nicolás's story also illustrates how much the lines between rural and urban and Mexican and American blur into and layer on top of each other. More importantly, my father and I, just like other migrants and children of migrants of our respective generations, used available resources -- like the rodeo buckle -- to connect with Mexico and identify as Mexican. I believe that bull riding was an expression of both my father's romantic and idealist vision of American cowboy culture and his place of birth, La Ceja, Zacatecas. His vision of both these places was mediated through his experience as a young man in the urban city of Guadalajara. Some of the skills that bull riding required were fostered in the goal on dirt soccer fields. That he learned to ride a bull from a white American, speaks to the movement of people, popular culture, and everyday practices across the US-Mexico border. The belt buckle contains and represents this complex and nuanced narrative. This is why my father cherished it so much and why it has served me as a type of amulet. It came with me when I left California to attend Columbia University, in New York City, for doctoral studies in History. I wore it to my first graduate seminar, to the first lecture I gave on migration, and to my discussion sections with undergraduates. And, I wear it now, as I sit in a Mexico City coffee shop, writing out its history.
All images courtesy of Romeo Guzmán.
1 The literal translation is "may the devil take me."
2 Josh Kun, "California Sueños," Boom: A Journal of California 1 (Spring 2011): no 1, 62.
3 James Lockhart, "The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Century" (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994). Caterina Pizzigoni. "The Life Within: Local Indigenous Society in Mexico's Toluca Valley," 1650-1800. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).
4 Mary Lou LeCompte, "The Hispanic Influence on the History of Rodeo, 1823-1922," Journal of Sport History 12 (Spring 1985): no.1, 22.
5 Compte. "The Hispanic Influence."
6 Compte. "The Hispanic Influence."
7 Albert Camarillo, "Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California," 1848-1930 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).
8 Compte, "The Hispanic Influence," 33.
9 Camarillo, "Chicanos in a Changing Society."
10 Compte, "The Hispanic Influence," 21.
11 For an introduction to Mexican nation-building after the revolution, see Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, eds., "Everyday Forms of State Formation" (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994) and Mary Kay Vaughan, and Stephen E. Lewis, eds., "The Eagle and the Virgin" (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). For case studies, see Christopher Boyer, "Becoming Campesinos: Politics, Identity, and Agrarian Struggle in Postrevolutionary Michoacán" (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003) and Alexander Dawson, "Indian and the Nation in Revolutionary Mexico" (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004).
12 See Autry Museum's online text for the exhibit "Art of the Charreria: A Mexican Tradition"